We all know that college is expensive and more and more Americans are taking on alarming levels of debt to attend two- and four-year institutions. Many, many of them never graduate and therefore can’t get the jobs they need to pay back their loans. It’s a vicious cycle.
The bottom line is that U.S. colleges and universities are not fiscally structured to accommodate the vast numbers of people who can’t afford to attend them. Most institutions of higher learning are still functioning on funding structures built for students whose families don’t blink an eye when the tuition bill arrives in their mailbox. They simply write a check and get on with their day.
What the heck is to be done?
In a recent article, “Making college more affordable,” three university presidents offer ideas for doing just that. Jill Tiefenthaler, president of Colorado College, makes a very well-reasoned argument that increasing endowments through philanthropic efforts would work. This is indeed a good idea for long-term help. Unfortunately, it takes years of building a pipeline of donors in order to get those coveted checks.
Eric Barron, president of Penn State University, focuses on the added cost when a student doesn’t finish a degree on time. The extra semesters and years of study result in higher costs for those years of missed earning power. He cites a startling statistic: 62% of first-generation, need-based students are working an average of 22 hours a week. No wonder they are taking longer to walk across the stage. So, his solution is “a laser-like focus on mitigating all factors that slow the time to the completion of the degree.” Another excellent idea. If we gave student financial literacy advisers and ensure that they could focus on their studies without having to work ridiculous numbers of hours, the statistics would start to change.
Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana, also focuses in part on the time to degree issue, stating that “each extra year increases the cost of the bachelor’s degree by 25%.” He says this is due in part to students’ lack of college preparedness which means they end up having to take remedial classes or redo courses they fail. His solution is to build an educational pipeline that makes sure all students who want to go to college are college-ready by the time they graduate from high school. In order to that, “the teaching profession must be elevated and the nation’s best students should be encouraged to become teachers.” Amen to that. I love this solution because this is exactly where it all begins.
Imagine a world where teachers made as much as lawyers and doctors? What if stating “My son, the teacher” had the bragging rights that “My son, the doctor” has? Or if someone said, “My daughter is a teacher,” and people would be as impressed as they are when you say, “My daughter is an attorney.” THAT would be a world I would welcome.
Until we build a world where educating young people is as prized and revered as the professions that work toward a more just and healthy world, I’m afraid the vicious cycle will continue.